Leather Belt-Maker Works in Medieval Tower Following Guild Extinction
The old tower clock was just striking five o’clock when we drove through the gates into Sighișoara’s Citadel. A feeling of enchantment swept over me at the sight of this medieval fortified town with its massive encircling walls, turrets, and towers built and maintained by the city’s 15 guilds which included groups like Blacksmiths, Butchers, Cobblers, Furriers, Beltmakers, Ropemakers, Tailors, Tanners, Goldsmiths, Tinsmiths. The guilds erected 14 towers in Sighișoara, of which 9 have survived. The Clock Tower is the main entry point and the most beautiful of them all. In the central square, numbers of shops and restaurants with outdoor sitting are situated, creating a relaxing and comfortable atmosphere. Gazing out along the picturesque cobbled alleys it’s not hard to see the simplicity of outline observable in old Saxon architecture, and the absence of exaggeration and that disagreeable fussiness brought about by too much striving after the plastic and concrete. We rush toward the Furriers’ Tower to meet leather belt-maker Nistor Ana Maria, the last crafter to work in a tower.
Visiting Leather Belt-Maker Nistor Ana Maria’s Workshop Inside Furriers Tower of Sighișoara Citadel
Erected on the west side of the citadel by the Furriers Guild, the 14th-century Furriers Tower has a tall and spindly tiled roof and square base with top openings from which city defenders could pour hot oil and water on the enemy. We climb the abrupt wooden stairs to the balcony. Peering in, we can see the leather belt-maker at her trade.
We head into Ana Maria’s shop on the first floor. It is a tiny place displaying a wide selection of leather accessories made by Ana Maria. Beautifully designed and superbly executed belts, bags, wallets, gun holsters, riding crops, bullwhips, wide belts, and sandals are neatly displayed on the walls and on the balcony. She stays indoors and busies herself with making handmade leather belts. In front of the wall farthest from the entrance, there are a stitching horse and a working bench. Leaning against the right wall, there is a big wooden panel, on which a large choice of old tools is fixed. Above the panel, on the ledge of an arched window, stands an open photo album, displaying a picture of a leather master craftsman.
„He is my father, Nistor Ioan. He was the last belt-maker of The Belt-Makers’ Guild. When he was alive, we were participating in craft fairs from different cities and museums. As a child, I offered to help my parents a lot, so I learned the trade while helping him. I didn’t choose this career. It chose me”, she reminisces about her childhood before her father’s picture.
Eight years back, with the support of the Mihai Eminescu Trust Foundation, which aims to save and restore abandoned buildings, farms, and fortified churches, as well as keeping the local craftsmen in the business, they came to work and sell their crafts inside The Furrier’s Tower.
„When I was little, he had a workshop in the city. For the past eight years, with the support of the MET Foundation, we have been working here, in the tower. When they opened the tower, they wanted a local craftsman to caretake the tower, the museum, while introducing visitors to the leather trade. My father passed away two years ago, so I was left to continue the craft and keep the tower open to visitors”, she says with a sigh. Ana Maria is always the first to arrive and the last to depart.
I look at each product displayed and admire the craftsmanship. Every detail of a leather item that she makes is made by hand. From cutting, skiving, and edging the leather, to punching and sewing, everything is done manually, by use of old tools inherited from the Belt-Makers’ Guild.
„They were inherited by my father, then passed down to me. They have been in the guild for over 50 years” she says while pointing to the ample supply of tools.
She uses only cow leather. It is thicker, stouter, suited for larger articles, and requiring greater firmness in handling than other kinds of leather. With just four simple tools, she prepares the material needed to make bracelets: a peeling tool to manually thin out the leather, a cutting tool to cut to the desired width, a skiving knife to adjust the sharp lines and a creaser to work the edges.
Stamping Impressions on Leather
On her working bench, a small pile of leather bracelets is ready to receive impressions. But before stamping impressions, she wets the leather using water and a sponge. In order to leave crisp impressions on the leather, it should be lightly and evenly sponged, neither too mushy, nor too dry. The design is worked upon a flat board. She uses a punch, at one end of which is a mold of a star or other design which is of great help in making little patterns over the leather background, to which it is held with the left hand. She has many of these punches, each, of course, made to stamp a different design. The design possibilities are unlimited.
Punching is done by holding the punch pattern downwards on the leather and striking the head of it a sharp tap with the hammer. Each stroke should be of similar force that the marks may be of equal depth and sharpness. When the work is finished, they are left to dry off upon a flat surface for a day, to prevent mold growth.
Hand Sewing a Leather Purse With Stitching Horse
She then proceeds to show us how the purses are made. She makes one from a single piece of leather. „Everything is made by hand. From start to finish. I don’t use a sewing machine”, she says, while punching holes in preparation for hand sewing. Then, she sits on the stool of a stitching horse, facing the vertical clamp. The purse is caught in between the claws, while her foot presses the pedal underneath the stool, increasing the tension of the clamp, which in turn holds the leather more securely. Using two needles and a waxed thread, she then executes a cross-stitch through the holes poked earlier. When the work is finished, the thread is pounded flat with a hammer, giving a smooth aspect to the sewing. You can tell the greatness and devotion to craftmanship by just looking at the accuracy of her movements.
She points to a list on a sidewall. „These are the members of The Belt-Makers’ Guild. My father was the last practitioner. He learned the trade from Mr. Deneș Zoltan. I knew him” she remembers. „Some of them moved to Germany, some died, and my father ended up with all the tools of the guild.”
The old clock strikes seven. We leave Sighișoara carrying with us the memory of an unforgettable place imbued with a deep sense of the past.
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